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Story Tools

Date of Issue: March 18, 2009


Bad writing and good, plus tips for both

Remember “Call me Ishmael” as arguably the best opening line to a novel? (“Moby Dick,” by Herman Melville.”)

You also probably remember, “It was a dark and stormy night.” (“Paul Clifford,” by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.)

Ah, what a wretched opening line.

It’s a good assumption that since you’re reading this column you’ve got some interest in writing and reading. Melville “Sandscript” ain’t, but here’s some funny writing examples and a few tips for author wannabes.

The contest

Bulwer-Lytton has gained some notoriety due to his awful writing skills in the form of an annual contest in his name. The 2008 winner was Garrison Spik, who penned:

“Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’”

Nose-clothespins suggested to read below

Here’s Bulwer-Litton’s first paragraph of “Paul Clifford:”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the quartier in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with. All the answers he received were couched in the negative; and as he turned from each door he muttered to himself, in no very elegant phraseology, his disappointment and discontent.”

And if you want to find out what happens next in the story … I’m sorry for you.

Tips

Some advice to improve your writing skills is offered in Coastal Services, a bi-monthly publication from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The magazine deals with water issues in the United States and beyond, and is edited by friend and Sanibel Island native Hanna Goss.

Although the publication is targeted to coastal managers, one of the articles contains suggestions pertinent to anyone who writes pretty much anything, from an e-mail to a friend to a notice for a newspaper to a scientific study. The advise includes the following:

Start with a plan. Before you begin to write the actual document, write a theme statement. It will relay, in a conversational tone, what your document is trying to say and to whom. The statement will help you focus your work.

Cut out unnecessary words. You may think the detail is important, but strive to be succinct. The key is to say something clearly with the fewest words possible. It’s about having respect for the time the reader must put into reading and understanding your points.

Know your audience. Does your theme statement interest your audience? Do they really care about the history of the project or the people who worked so hard to bring it to them? Make sure your focus and the bulk of your text addresses what the audience is interested in, not what you wish they were interested in.

Watch how you use words and phrases. A sure sign that someone is trying to over explain something is a document littered with an excessive amount of words or phrases in a series. Instead of saying, “This legislation will help preserve coastal resources,” the text will say, “These laws, policies, memorandums of agreement and regulations will help protect and conserve the beaches, freshwater wetlands, saltwater wetlands, sand dunes and isolated wetlands of the region, the state and the community.”

Lose the acronyms. Define an acronym in the first occurrence and then use the acronym for the rest of the document. Remember, though, that acronyms slow the reader down and can impede communication. All too often writing appears as some morass of alphabet soup instead of a course of a fine meal.

A test

The novella “The Old Man and the Sea” won Ernest Hemingway a Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. He once said of the book that it was as tight as he could make it, and challenged anyone to open it at random and read a passage and try to make it more succinct.

Here’s the test, Papa, and apologies for the dust on my old, battered copy of your book.

“He could not see by the slant of the line that the fish was circling. It was too early for that. He just felt a faint slackening of the pressure of the line and he commenced to pull on it gently with his right hand. It tightened, as always, but just when he reached the point where it would break, line began to come in. He slipped his shoulders and head from under the line and began to pull in line steadily and gently. He used both of his hands in a swinging motion and tried to do the pulling as much as he could with body and his legs. His old legs and shoulders pivoted with the swinging of the pulling. ‘It is a very big circle,’ he said. ‘But he is circling.’”

It could probably be tightened up to read something like, “The old man continued to fight the fish. He thought it might be coming to his boat,” but it’s not quite the same, is it?

It seems the succinct version by “Sandscript” versus Hemingway’s prose ain’t Nobel Prize material.

Sandscript factoid

Ready to offer your entry to the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest? You’ve got until April 15, an easy date to remember and perhaps a good deadline for some creative venting. Go to www.bulwer-lytton.com/ for details.

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